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ELO’s Jeff Lynne: My Life in 15 Songs

The Electric Light Orchestra leader on “Mr. Blue Sky,” producing the Beatles and why he’d rather have just stayed in the studio

Jeff Lynn; My Life in 10 Songs

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Even during the height of Electric Light Orchestra’s hit-making days in the late 1970s, only the most devoted rock fans knew the name Jeff Lynne. “I never pushed myself forward,” he says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I could have gotten a big head, but it just wasn’t in my nature. All I wanted was studio time and more studio time and even more studio time.”

When a shifting musical climate in the 1980s made ELO seem like dinosaurs, Lynne became a producer and within the course of less than two years crafted comeback albums for George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison before pulling all of them together, along with Bob Dylan, into the short-lived supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. “It was a marvelous time,” says Lynne. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I should have been doing this years ago.'”

But after 30 years of working almost exclusively behind the scenes, Lynne accepted an offer to revive Electric Light Orchestra for a massive show in London’s Hyde Park in the summer of 2014. He was a jumble of nerves when he walked onto the stage and faced 50,000 fans. “I felt such relief that all these people were there, screaming and clapping to every song,” he says. “It made me feel really good. I had so much fun doing it, I decided to come back and do a new album.”

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Electric Light Orchestra, “Showdown” (1973)

In the late 1960s, I was in a group called the Idle Race and this guy called Roy Wood that was in the Move, we used to meet up at the clubs in Birmingham and we got to be pals. We’d go to each other’s house and listen to each other’s music, and we thought it might be nice to have a group with strings in it. Back then, most groups didn’t have anything other than drums and guitar, organ and maybe saxophones and trumpets. I wanted to do something different than 15-minute guitar solos since I wasn’t that good at that anyway. The big problem with strings in those days is there was no pickups for them. It was a real pain in the ass trying to do shows. After about three months, Roy left me to do his own group. I carried on and became the sole producer and the sole writer.

I wrote “Showdown” in my mom and dad’s front room in Birmingham. I made the riff up and I was thrilled with it. I knew it was going to be a hit even after I had just done a few notes of it. When we cut it the engineer said, “This is a classic.” I was thrilled to bits. It’s one of my favorites, though the lyrics don’t mean anything, really. It’s just a story, a made-up scenario. A lot of people ask me what my songs mean and I have no idea. It means something different to me every time I sing it.

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Electric Light Orchestra, “Evil Woman” (1975)

I wrote this in a matter of minutes. The rest of the album (Face the Music) was done. I listened to it and thought, "There's not a good single." So I sent the band out to a game of football and made up "Evil Woman" on the spot. The first three chords came right to me. It was the quickest thing I'd ever done. We kept it slick and cool, kind of like an R&B song. It was kind of a posh one for me, with all the big piano solos and the string arrangement. It was inspired by a certain woman, but I can't say who. She's appeared a few times in my songs.

Playing concerts in those days wasn't fun. The sound was always bad and we were still playing theaters and town halls, the occasional dance hall. After "Evil Woman," we got more gigs, but it didn't change my life all that much. You can't buy a palace or anything after just one hit.

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Electric Light Orchestra, “Telephone Line” (1976)

I can remember writing this on an old out-of-tune upright piano. I somehow squeezed this song out of it. I sound really desperate and lonely on this one, and maybe I was. It's about trying to find a girl every night and you just can't get through to her. It was a scenario I thought of, but maybe it was prompted by the fact that I wasn't happy at the time. When I was a kid, I loved the plaintive songs of Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. They wrote songs that were really sad and those were the best. I thought I was writing those sort of songs. People tell me the song gives them a boost, but I never dreamed I was doing that for anybody.

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Electric Light Orchestra, “Turn to Stone” (1977)

"Turn to Stone" is one of my favorites I ever did. It's just so primary and simple, but yet very evocative. I love the shuffle beat. There's a part in the middle where I talk super fast. I just felt like it needed something simple in the middle of the song. I often used to put a funny little piece in a song just in case I get bored with it. I'd go, "Well, maybe this is going on too long. I'll think of something daff to put in there."

Disco was popular around this time, and I loved it. I loved the strictness of it. It really helped the group because I could really get a good punch going. There's a lot of goodness in disco. I like some punk too. Obviously they were doing it from a place where they meant well, though maybe they didn't quite know how to play properly yet. They were rough and ready, like I was when I started.

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Electric Light Orchestra, “Mr. Blue Sky” (1978)

I suppose this is my most well-known song. Everybody tells me something different about it. It's even got crazy appeal to kids since it's like a nursery rhyme. I remember writing the words down. I was at a chalet in the mountains of Switzerland and it was all misty and cloudy all the way around. I didn't see any countryside for the first four days or so, and then everything cleared and there was this enormous view forever and the sky was blue.

By this point, we were playing stadiums. I think the biggest crowed was 83,000. It was fun, but kind of scary as well. I'd think, "I hope the Beatles are on afterwards — otherwise we're gonna get murdered." The concerts were horrible. I couldn't hear the strings, and half the time you had to turn them off because they used to run around while they played them.

I was reluctant to become a real rock star. I was shy and was always told to not get a big head. And my favorite thing in the world was to work 14 hours a day in the studio. Everything else was peripheral to me, like having the record out and promoting it. I did have a big house, but I didn't do rock-star things. I never saw myself like that. I was a songwriter, singer and producer. Rock stars are different. They dress all flashy and hang out in nightclubs. That just wasn't my priority. I liked to spend my spare moments at the pub.

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Electric Light Orchestra, “Don’t Bring Me Down” (1979)

This one I made up in the studio, and I play all the instruments. It starts with a drum loop from another song that I sped up. I then compressed the shit out of it. When I was singing it, there was gap in the vocals, so I just shouted out "groose." It was a word that came to my head. The engineer said that it meant "greetings" in German, which I thought was lovely and decided to leave in. When I went onstage with it everyone would sing "Bruce." I just ended up singing "Bruce" as well.

This was the first song I did without any strings. It was exciting to work with them when we started, but [after] six albums, I got fed up with them. There was also trouble with the unions. They'd stop playing before the end of the song if the end of the hour was approaching. Now they aren't so rude since there are samplers and everything.

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Electric Light Orchestra, “All Over the World” (1980)

"All Over the World" was a song written for the Olivia Newton-John movie Xanadu. I wrote half the songs in the film, though I've never seen the thing. I don't suppose anybody else has either. It was supposed to be really bad. But I'm really pleased with the music. This song never lets up, and it's very catchy and optimistic. I don't think I'll ever see the movie after reading the reviews. I took it because I thought, "Well, I like Olivia Newton-John. She's great. It would be nice to meet her."

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George Harrison, “When We Was Fab” (1987)

I decided to pack it in in 1986. About six months later, George Harrison got in touch with me to ask me to work on his new album. A few days after he met me, he said, "Let's go on holiday. I'm going to Australia for a while." He took me to the Grand Prix in Adelaide, which was amazing.

It felt like an adventure, since I used to just bang out tunes in my little studio. It was now on an international scale. George came up with the words for "When I Was Fab." It was magical for me, since it was supposed to sound like a Beatles song, even though we didn't exactly use Beatles sounds. The album was a tremendous success and sold about 5 million copies. I was just so touched he wanted to work with me.

[Meanwhile, the other members of ELO started doing shows as ELO 2.] It's water under the bridge now, but what happened was the promoters would change the name to ELO and I'd have to sue every time.

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Roy Orbison, “You Got It” (1988)

This is a bittersweet thing because he was such a big hero to me. I used to listen to him for hours and hours as a kid. I produced three tracks on his last album (Mystery Girl) and co-wrote three tracks with him. I wrote "You Got It" with Roy and Tom Petty. For years before this, he'd just been going through the motions of recording and not working with people who were empathetic with him or who had put enough care and love into the music. I reminded him of who he was and how great he was, and that's why I got a great performance out of him. 

It was just dreadful when I heard he had died. I got a call at like six in the morning, and all I heard was "Mr. Orbison has died," and then they hung up. I still have no idea who called me. I had to get up and listen to the radio to see if it was bullshit or real. It turned out to be real, unfortunately. "You Got It" had just come out when he died of a heart attack at his mother's house. He was a beautiful guy, as well as the best singer I've ever heard.

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Brian Wilson, “Let It Shine” (1988)

I had just finished George Harrison's album when Warner Bros. asked me to produce Brian Wilson. I was like, "You can't produce Brian Wilson. He's the best producer in the world." But I said yes and I co-wrote a song with him. We wrote "Let It Shine" at his house in Malibu. He was really struggling in his life. It was horrible and he was being treated badly. But you could see what a nice guy he was despite everything happening in the background. It was all very distressing. I only saw Dr. Landy a couple of times, walking around with his cape and walking stick. I don't really want to talk about that, though. Brian's doing great now and has a lovely wife.

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Tom Petty, “Free Fallin'” (1989)

I met Tom in England and then I saw him again at some streetlight in Los Angeles. He said, "Jeff, pull over." I did and he said, "I just listened to George's album. What about coming over and writing some tunes together?" I said, "I'd love to." Probably the second song we wrote was "Free Fallin'." I got the chords to it and we both fleshed out the chorus. It was like "Evil Woman" in that we got a repetitive chord sequence and then the melody turns into a chorus. Everyone who heard it knew it was a hit, and the next song we did was "I Won't Back Down."

It was Tom's first solo album and I didn't realize it would be such a big thing for the band, Tom going off on his own. I ended up doing most of the stuff, playing the keyboard and the bass and telling the drummer what to play. Mike [Campbell] was there, but I found out afterwards it was a problem for the other guys. The thing is, he got a great record out of it. It's still my favorite record that I ever made with anybody. I love it. It's so simple and fresh and it's got no bullshit.

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The Traveling Wilburys, “Nobody’s Child” (1990)

When you hang out with George Harrison, you can do whatever you like. On the strength of that, that's how the Traveling Wilburys came to me. One night while we were recording he said, "We should form a group." I said, "Who should we have in it?" He said, "Bob Dylan." I'm going, "Bloody hell." I never expected that answer. And then I said, "Can we have Roy Orbison?" He said, "Great, I love Roy." And we both loved Tom. Everyone we asked joined immediately, so that was a great thing. 

We never played any concerts, though George had some whack ideas about how we'd do this tour. His first idea was that we'd rent an aircraft carrier and then we'd just fly to different ports and let everyone climb onto the aircraft carrier and have a listen to us. The next idea was we'd do it on a train. We'd pull into a station and drop a stage and play for the people that came to see us at the station. But we never got around to either of them. Everyone else had their own tours.

"Nobody's Child" was a charity thing we did after the first album. It raised money for orphans. It's an old American folk song. It's got a real nice sentiment to it. We did a second album after Roy died, but I could have done without it. Roy was just too big a part of the original group.

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The Beatles, “Free as a Bird” (1995)

George asked me to do this, and it was the hardest thing I've had to do in my life. There was this elation and dread at the same time. I was given a mono one-track cassette tape of John singing the song in 1977. I came to the first session with George and we were late, which was a bad start. Ringo and Paul were already there. All four of us sat down at a table, the first time they'd all been together for about 20 years. They spent a long time talking about the old days, just reminiscing. I was thrilled to bits. It was what I always dreamed of.

Some days I thought I was going to get it right, and other days I thought, "What did I get myself into?" There weren't computers in those days, so I had to use a little sampler. One night I waited until everyone went home and I started to work. I got John's first line in there, nudged it a bit and then pressed John in with my finger so it went onto the tape in the right place. I did that all the way through the song, fitting him in wherever I could. It would have been much easer if I had ProTools. The next morning Paul came in and was like, "Jeff, you did it! Well done." He gave me a big hug. It was a relief and a pleasure at the same time.

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Jeff Lynne’s ELO, “When I Was a Boy” (2015)

I had all these negative thoughts before agreeing to play Hyde Park last year, but the crowd just went bananas all the way through. They loved every minute of it. It was the best show I'd ever been involved with up until that point. I began a new album, and the first single was "When I Was a Boy." It's the most autobiographical song I've ever done. The words just wrote themselves, whereas normally I'd sweat them out and chain myself to my desk. It was about growing up and listening to my little crystal-set radio with headphones. I play all the instruments besides shaker and tambourine. We used electronic string samples, but they sound exactly the same to me and I'm sure most other people.

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Jeff Lynne’s ELO, “Love and Rain” (2015)

My daughter sings background vocals on that. It began as an old recording demo. I just loved the sound of the thing. It sounded like a giant Clavinet, but it was actually a Telecaster. The album is doing really well in England. It hit Number Seven. We played Jimmy Fallon in America. I used to dread going on TV because of the problem of using so many cellos, but now I've got a proper band and they take care of everything. And with monitors, I can actually hear myself. It's taken me about 40 years to get here, but I've finally caught on.

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